London exhibition turns attention to poor recycling practices

Items unsuitable for recycling will appear in a new exhibition in Kings Cross, London, to highlight the consequences of attempting to recycle inappropriate materials.

Entitled Thanks for Trying, the exhibit is located in Coal Drops Yard and is curated by artist Mat Kemp, who often works with ‘found’ artefacts.

Thanks for TryingIt will run from 20-23 July 2021, and will consist of some of the more unorthodox objects that have been rejected from north London’s household recycling stream, including helmets, reading glasses and fairy wings.

Artist Mat Kemp said: “Recycling is now a part of all of our lives and this project aims to make people aware that with a little more care, we can be much more effective recyclers.

“What we discard says a lot about us.

“Beauty and intrigue can be found in many of these items... they tell a story and we have the ability to give that story a more compelling ending.”

The exhibition was put together with support from North London Waste Authority’s (NLWA) recycling contractor, Biffa Waste Services, and LondonEnergy Ltd – the company that runs north London’s reuse and recycling centres, as well as its energy-from-waste (EfW) facility in Edmonton.

In parallel with this exhibition, the ‘Thanks for Trying’ message has also been promoted throughout July with an advertising campaign that has appeared in the London Underground and bus stops across north London; on social media; on recycling vehicles; and in local newspapers.

New national polling undertaken by Censuswide in June 2021 and commissioned by the NLWA found that of the 3,000 people surveyed, 58 per cent admit to putting items in the recycling that they’re not sure are actually recyclable.

This was much higher amongst younger people – 69 per cent for 16-24 year-olds and 72 per cent for 25-34 year olds.

Of those surveyed, 36 per cent put kitchen roll in their household recycling, 43 per cent threw away broken drinks glasses and cookware, and 19 per cent threw away black plastic bin bags, even though none of these items can actually be recycled.

Recycling contamination makes the recycling process more challenging, as well as costing councils large amounts of money.

Last year, according to the NLWA, 15 per cent of the materials collected in north London were contaminated with non-recyclables like nappies, food, clothes, or black bags of rubbish.

The NLWA states that 18,000 tonnes of household recycling had to go to waste, with the rejected loads and their associated costs totalling approximately £2 million each year.

New data from NLWA shows that between April and September 2020, 559 loads of collected mixed recyclable material were either rejected, and consequently disposed of as residual waste, or downgraded at the Materials Recovery Facility (MRF) where recyclable material is processed. 

Black bin bags were the most common contaminant, found in over 500 loads -- they regularly clog up machinery in the processing plants.

The next common was textiles (490 loads), followed by food waste (432 loads) and electrical items (303 loads).

The polling also revealed that 59 per cent of people said they’d like to be better at recycling.

NLWA is urging people to think beyond their doorstep recycling and use local reuse and recycling centres, as well as the other forms of home collection service available in north London.

It is also urging people to consider simply passing items on to friends or neighbours, or using websites such as Freecycle and Freegle to shift unwanted items.

NLWA has identified three key actions which could make a significant difference to recycling rates not only in north London but across the country: making sure packaging is empty, and rinsing off any food; avoiding putting black bin bags in with recycling; and, if unsure, putting it in the waste bin.

Residents are also urged to check out the  A-Z search of what you can recycle in north London on  NLWA’s website.

Chair of NLWA, Councillor Clyde Loakes, commented: “People are getting better at recycling and we’re really encouraged that most are trying to do the right thing, however we’re finding people’s enthusiasm for wanting to recycle even impractical items is having a serious impact on the recycling process and is also costing tax-payers money.

“Our household recycling service takes clean glass, paper, cardboard, cans and plastic packaging – not army helmets and Bibles.

“There are lots of ways to recycle items like textiles or electricals, like at the local reuse and recycling centre, but they should not go in your household recycling bin.

“Some of the other items in our exhibition like plastic toys, mirrors and reading glasses just cannot be recycled at all and, if they aren’t reusable, they should go in the general waste.

“Nappies and food also regularly contaminate loads of recycling and many people don’t realise it’s people who have to pick out these items, not machinery.

“Small changes in the way people recycle can significantly help the recycling process and we’d urge people to take the ‘if in doubt, leave it out’ approach - this way we can significantly reduce contamination and improve recycling levels.”